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Honor, Sacred and Profane

As an enterprising but impecunious young man, Benjamin Franklin made a list of thirteen virtues—which he formulated into graphs—and set about perfecting each one in rotating cycles of thirteen weeks. He and some friends in Philadelphia formed a group called the Junto which was dedicated to mutual moral and intellectual improvement. Their most significant legacy was to establish one of the first subscription libraries in America, in 1731. The Library Company of Philadelphia still exists to this day. As an elder statesman, after he had achieved a reputation for greatness and amassed a small fortune, Franklin related stories such as these in his Autobiography. He hoped to encourage forthcoming generations to emulate his example of doing well through doing good.

George Washington began his life on the opposite end of the social hierarchy. Though saddled with the disadvantage of being a younger son, he was born into a family of some wealth. He would eventually earn, inherit, and marry into even greater prosperity. And beyond the good things that money could buy, even more important to his success was the influence of family and friends in the upper echelons of Virginia’s gentry.

More pedigreed but less original than Franklin, he cribbed his moral program, the Rules of Civility, from a French guide to manners. These rules blended social niceties with serious moral guidance, such as admonitions against spitting into the fire, picking one’s teeth at the table, or visibly rejoicing at the misfortunes of anyone, even an enemy. Although Washington’s sense of honor would mature with age, it always ran deeper than mere social graces. From his earliest days he aspired to be America’s Cato, and he really did become our Cincinnatus.

Historical Heterodoxy

Stories such as these are hardly well-kept secrets. Consequently, anyone who is already familiar with this historical period should not be surprised to learn that America’s Founders were motivated by a sense of honor, or that their conceptions of honor included a moral dimension. Therefore, it is perhaps a sign of the times rather than any defect of this book, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era, that Craig Bruce Smith has mounted such a spirited offensive to defend what ought to be straightforward claims.

Yet by telling these stories and focusing on archaic themes like virtue and honor, Smith is bucking recent defamatory trends in historiography (which often read like tabloids for the erudite). According to Gordon S. Wood, the current generation of historians believes that “history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing.” The newer fragmentary accounts of America’s origins, which single-mindedly focus on race and gender inequities, are often reduced to “condemning the past for not being more like the present.” Smith’s storytelling is, by his own admission, a different kind of fragmentary account. But by adding this dimension to what we already know about the period, we are left with a more comprehensive view of the whole.

The Founders’ understanding and embodiment of honor has never before received an exhaustive examination, and we can be grateful that Smith has undertaken the charge. To his credit, Smith acknowledges that the concept of honor embodies a wide spectrum of meaning, and he attempts to clarify these multifarious meanings without ever conflating or oversimplifying them. For Christian writers like John Bunyan, it was Jesus Christ who exemplified “a person of honor,” and Cotton Mather agreed that it was He who “made the performance of good works ‘honourable.’” The word also embodied the public spiritedness of Nathan Hale, who volunteered to undertake the office of American spy (traditionally a calling of some disrepute), saying that every “service, necessary to the public good, becomes honorable by being necessary.” When the British later executed him for that public service, he more famously expressed his regrets that he had but one life to lose for his country. But the word also encompassed what Smith calls the “pathology of honor,” the essentially selfish pursuit of personal aggrandizement, usually through superficial appearances (such as dress) or desperate acts (such as dueling), and often attended by the denigration or destruction of others.

Why Honor Matters

American Honor seeks to establish four central claims about its titular subject, and it succeeds in most of them.

First, Smith argues that honor was of central importance to the Founders, rather than a peripheral consideration. By drawing a vivid but complex portrait of honor culled from the words and actions of early Americans, as well as the literary sources that inspired them, the book offers an “ethical history” and “a new causation narrative” of the American Revolution. In this sense, it is yet another challenge to Charles Beard’s thesis: a salutary reminder that the Founders were not merely seeking to promote their economic self-interest. They certainly understood themselves to be pursuing something loftier; their language was suffused with the vocabulary of honor and virtue.

Second, Smith contends that the meaning of honor for this generation was intimately tied to virtue, ethics, and even some expressions of Christianity. While not denying that some appeals to honor were little more than sublimated machismo—an affectation of preening brutes who restlessly sought opportunities to display their prowess on the battlefield, dueling grounds, or in other forms of violent confrontation—the book draws attention to the numerous instances when the notion of honor aspired to be nobler. Assertions of personal or national honor were at times synonymous with virtue, or at least they were meant to be virtue’s appropriate reward: the well-earned reputation for personal merit. Just as Douglass Adair sought to rescue the notion of “fame” by distinguishing it from its poor relation, mere celebrity, Smith seeks to give honor its due by distinguishing the magnanimous expressions from its debased forms.

Nevertheless, Smith acknowledges the difficulties of explicating a term that bears such diverse and fluid meanings, and much of the appeal of this book comes from tracking how the word transmogrified over time and across regional boundaries. During the Revolutionary War, appeals to honor were often (though by no means always) altruistic calls for self-sacrifice in pursuit of some greater good. The next generation, lacking any national crisis which demanded of them comparable greatness, attempted to retain the grandeur of the concept without adopting the self-discipline and selflessness that had won their Fathers so much glory.

Smith points out that, following the Hamilton-Burr duel, “affairs of honor” were increasingly denounced as immoral and un-Christian. But at the same time, the instances of actual duels mushroomed. In a brief but effective epilogue, Smith illustrates the decline and fall of the once-lofty concept by describing its personification in Andrew Jackson, whose notions of honor were at times indistinguishable from savagery.

Third, Smith argues that honor evolved into a uniquely American and more egalitarian meaning on this side of the Atlantic. Unlike its counterparts in Great Britain, American forms of honor matured until they were divorced from family names, social status, or aristocratic overtones. These egalitarian shifts created opportunities for a kind of ethical mobility, which alone could have accounted for the meteoric rise to fame of a Franklin or a Hamilton.

In this regard, perhaps the most fascinating stories in the book are those that describe how unegalitarian were America’s notions of honor before the war. Pre-revolution colleges operated on a ranking system that had almost nothing to do with the students’ merit and everything to do with the social status of their parents. Certain privileges were granted to students based on these rankings (though students could be demoted for certain kinds of conduct). After the war, colleges abandoned these aristocratic trappings in favor of honor codes that stressed (and were meant to inculcate) moral integrity in the entire student body.

Egalitarian and meritocratic notions of honor also transformed the military. George Washington, as a young man, had benefited from the patronage system that was inseparable from His Majesty’s service. Yet he resisted that same system when serving as general during the war. His efforts were not uniformly successful, since others still expected and demanded promotion and preferment for reasons other than merit. But Washington’s conversion to a merit-based system meant that military service could become another road to honor, since a man of courage and abilities, be his birth ever so mean, could still aspire to be a “gentleman soldier.” Or, to borrow the words from a recent musical phenomenon, even “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore” might one day become the “right-hand man” of the regal Washington. Although he began his life with more aristocratic notions of honor, by its end Washington came close to embracing Franklin’s belief that even the everyman might aspire to greatness.

Finally, Smith seeks to argue that, largely because of the increasingly moral and newly egalitarian notions of honor, these concepts opened doors not only to the lower classes of white men but also to women and minorities in America. In this regard, the book is only partly successful in making good on its promises.

Virtues of the Least

Smith convincingly shows that among the founding generation the same language of honor was spoken by white men, women, free African Americans, and even slaves. But Smith seems loath to acknowledge that the same concept still resulted in starkly different outcomes for each. For white men, honor was sometimes synonymous with virtue and sometimes the appropriate reward for virtue. For women and people of color, virtue would have to be its own reward; in all but exceptional cases, the roads to public renown were open only to white men.

American Honor vividly recounts the exceptional cases: the inspiring story of Deborah Sampson (America’s Joan of Arc, who disguised herself as a man to enlist in the war and fight valiantly with her brother-soldiers, but was honorably discharged after her identity was discovered), as well as the two women combatants who were nicknamed Molly Pitcher. But these three feisty dames were very much the exceptions, and the glories they received were more than offset by the examples of women who were imprisoned, fined, and publicly shamed for attempting to join the fight. As much as Smith valiantly tries to argue that women’s honor at this time transcended the crudest masculine notions of sexual purity and wifely submission—as exemplified in the novels of Samuel Richardson—even in Smith’s telling it becomes clear that the loftiest examples of republican wives and mothers were never accorded anything like the honor bestowed on their male counterparts.

Similarly, Smith convincingly argues that African Americans and slaves-turned-soldiers might attempt to use the same notions of honor to elevate their status. But it was nonetheless clear that these attempts met with very little success, and the book would have been better if it had simply acknowledged as much.

A greater flaw of the book was its tendency toward reductionism and oversimplification. Smith promises in the Introduction that his account is meant to supplement, rather than supplant, previous accounts of the Founding, but the book fails to make good on its promise of a restrained approach. Throughout the text, all historical conditions, arguments, and events are seen through the lens of honor, and (what is worse) the book leaves the impression that the Founders were looking through the same lens as its author.

According to Smith, after the French and Indian War, British encroachments on their colonists meant that the mother country had “sacrificed its honor.” The debates over nonimportation agreements were “always framed by the language of honor.” And Britain’s loss of virtue and honor became the “justification for revolution.” Yet, even in the discussion that follows such claims, it becomes clear that other ideals—including liberty, justice, prosperity, and independence—were at least as much at stake.

This tendency toward reductionism even results in some dubious renderings of a few of the primary texts. According to Smith, “Hamilton professed that all government positions would only be filled by men of virtue” . However, Hamilton was not prone to making such naïve statements. In the referenced passage from Federalist 68, Hamilton was speaking only of the office of president, and he gave the more measured assurance “that there will be a constant probability” of selecting “characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”

Slavery and Honor

Smith attributes to Alexander McLeod the sentiment that American slaveowners were “strongly influenced by personal motives,” which he then glosses by saying that this was “another way of saying personal honor.” But McLeod’s actual words were that Southern slaveowners were “strongly influenced by interested motives,” and it is clear from the context that McLeod is referring to motives of self-interest; honor had nothing to do with it. Speaking more generally, the book’s attempts to cast every complex issue, especially the institution of slavery and the Southerners’ resistance to abolition, as simple questions of honor were unpersuasive.

Even the book’s conflation of all moral language into expressions of honor is an oversimplification and can be misleading. Such fusions disguise those instances when even genuinely selfless appeals to national honor might conflict with competing moral claims, such as moderation and justice. It should be no derogation to American honor to say that, for our Founders, honor was one consideration among many. The book would have been improved if it could have fixed honor as a single bright star situated among the constellation of ideals and interests that the founding generation pursued.

But even with its flaws, American Honor, by developing an important concept that was likewise important to the Founders, improves the current state of scholarship on the American Founding. Alas, it is perhaps also a sign of our times that those who would most profit from reading this book are probably the least likely to do so.

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